Alex Hudson/Drug Information Center

The pursuit of illicit fun seems eternal. Kids are especially adept at this, as they usually aren’t plugged into the networks to procure more “mature” mood-altering substances. So they end up doing all kinds of wacky stuff they find in their house or at the local grocery store.

There is a laundry list of creative things people will take in order to achieve a high, but no group of legally available substances is as popular as inhalants.

They are the fourth most commonly used drugs, with around 18% of eighth graders reporting to have used inhalants at some time in their lifetime. There are over 1,400 different gaseous chemicals or volatile solvents that become gas at the time of use, which are inhaled by people for their psychoactive effects (ie: getting high).

We’ve known each other for a while now dear readers. I would hope that you have learned that if there is one thing I’m not into, it’s scare tactics. I respect you all more than that. But please hear me loud and clear when I tell you that using inhalants is seriously dangerous. I get the information for this column from various reputable, medical sources and never have I seen so unanimous and emphatic an assertion that a class of drugs be completely avoided. Here’s why:

Inhalants fall into three classes. There are nitrites, which are commonly referred to as poppers. Amyl nitrite is illegal without a prescription. Its cousins, isobutyl nitrite and butyl nitrite, are also illegal, but are often times sold as “video head cleaner” or “leather cleaner.” The vapors are sniffed directly from the bottle; the effects are felt almost immediately and last for one to two minutes. They cause the muscles around blood vessels to relax, making the heart speed up to pump blood. This causes a highly euphoric “rushing” feeling.

Nitrites cause the muscles of the vagina and anus to relax, and are commonly used during sex. This is a risky behavior, since the expansion of the blood vessels can increase the likelihood of tearing, increasing a person’s risk for STI transmission. They also have been shown to depress the immune system, again increasing the potential for infection. It’s been said before, but it can’t hurt to say it again. No glove, no love.

The next group of inhalants is anesthetics. These include ether and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is most commonly referred to as “laughing gas” or “whip hits”. This is the stuff they give you at the dentist to calm down. It is also found in whipped cream canisters and in special cartridges available for purchase at kitchen-supply stores. It is classified as a “dissociative anesthetic,” so it reduces (or blocks) signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain. It creates a dream-like state characterized by giggling, euphoria, sound distortion, and minor to strong hallucinations. Other effects include clumsiness, loss of balance and analgesia (pain relief).

Heavy use of the stuff can reduce the B12 vitamins in your body, which can lead to the numbing of nerve endings in the fingers and toes. Untreated B12 deficiency can lead to anemia, diarrhea and fatigue. Most of the dangers of whip hits are from accidents, which are increased when they are combined with other drugs or alcohol. Nausea is another common negative side effect, which is again increased with alcohol. Users also report high rates of pretty bad headaches. Less common but more permanent is the potential for death. A handful of people die every year when they suffocate on whatever it is they are inhaling from (balloon, plastic bag, etc). Some people also find nitrous addictive and engage in compulsive and repeated use of the stuff.

The third and by far the most dangerous group of inhalants are the volatile solvents. These are things like glue, paint thinner, gasoline, hair spray, and permanent markers. People huff these chemicals for the alcohol-like intoxication effects and hallucinations. The effects are almost immediate and last for a few minutes. The chemicals are cheap, legal and easy to obtain. This does not mean they are safe.

Huffing can cause irreversible damage to the brain, nerves, liver and other organs. There is also a little thing called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS), where the rush of adrenaline caused by the drug causes the heart to go into fatal arrest. It sounds cliché when people say this, but it’s real in this case. SSDS can happen the first time you huff. It has nothing to do with tolerance. Just Google inhalant deaths to read websites from tearful parents who lost their kids because of huffing. People also die of huffing when they choke to death on their vomit, or when their respiratory systems slow down and their hearts and brains don’t get enough oxygen. In the United States from 1996 to 1999 there were 500 deaths attributed to inhalant use, and these stats cover only 40 metropolitan areas.

If I was asked what I hoped to achieve through The Buzz, I would say it is to help you all make safer and healthy choices around drug and alcohol use. That’s my bias and my agenda. So take heed my dears, just because something is legal, doesn’t make it safe. Be well!